Sponsored
Elliot Bay Book Co., NAAM & Tasveer Present Isabel Wilkerson: Caste- The Origins of Our Discontents
This book shifts and alters fundamental perspectives on how race and related matters are understood!

In the spring of 1968, James Earl Ray's assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked uprisings across the country. Protestors in Chicago, tired of putting up with racist bullshit every second of their lives, burned and looted the west side for over two days, racking up millions in property damage and leaving at least nine dead.

At that time, Haki Madhubuti, then don l. lee, was running a magazine called Black Expressions. According to D.H. Melhem's Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, Madhubuti commissioned a poem about those uprisings from the great poet of Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks, who turned in "RIOT: A Poem in Three Parts." You can find it in her book, Blacks, which may or may not be available in local bookstores.

A few notes on Part I of the poem:

Support The Stranger

• The three-parter begins with a poem skewering a fictional Mayflower descendent named John Cabot, who more or less stands in for America's particular brand of imperialist, capitalist white supremacy. In part two, Brooks pieces together a collage of another world that rises from the ashes of the protest fire. This world is rooted in black philosophy, though whiteness constantly threatens to intrude. The third poem is a short and sweet lyric that imagines a utopian city full of laughter and "merry foreigners," where people can simply pass each other "down the imperturbable street." Long articles can and have been written about all three poems, but let's just focus on the first poem for now.

• After quoting MLK's oft-quoted defense of riots, Brooks draws a hilarious cartoon of a man named Cabot "out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe," a reference to his mother, who is apparently descended from the famous theologian. He almost forgets all the trappings of his "nourished" whiteness when he sees "'Negroes'... coming down the street....in rough ranks." Disgusted by their poverty and their sweatiness, their blackness and their loudness, their undetainability and their indiscretion, he calls for help "to any handy angel in the sky." He cries out, "Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” But then the blackness does touch him, and he dies "in the smoke and fire," quoting a racist Jesus's final words, “Lord! Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.”

• But I think about the condescension in Cabot's dying words every time I hear the tired, standard critique of riots against racial injustice. The people looting Target and occupying precincts in Minneapolis know exactly what they're doing. As one sign posted on the bones of an AutoZone read: "If we do this 'your way' we're doomed to repeat this again..." And while some important property was damaged, Officer Derek Chauvin, who allegedly killed George Floyd four days ago, is now under arrest and charged with murder. In a city with a police force as virulently racist as Minneapolis's, it's hard to see that arrest happening without this level of a response.